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The Fair Hope Benevolent Society


Contradictions of Fair Hope


The documentary sets the stage in rural Alabama, prior to Emancipation, and traces the development, struggles, contributions and gradual loss of tradition of one of the last remaining African American benevolent societies, known as “The Fair Hope Benevolent Society” in Uniontown, Alabama.

Through gripping human stories of some of the last surviving society members and interviews with historians and local residents, the film provides an unprecedented look at the complex and morally ambiguous world of Fair Hope juxtaposed against the worldly pleasures of what has become known as the annual “Foot Wash” celebration. A film by S. Epatha Merkerson and Rockell Metcalf. 

Latest sounds by WHYY Public Media:

GUESTS: S. Epatha Merkerson and Rockell Metcalf 

The Fair Hope Benevolent Society in rural Alabama was an organization that originally helped former slaves bury their dead, and aid the sick of transitional families in the late 19th century. It’s still an active group of elders, but the character of the annual Society Turnout of proud, male farmers, dressed in white aprons and gloves and ladies dressed all in white has turned to a so-called “Foot Wash.” This festival attracts gambling and the alleged open sale of drugs and sex, which has kept the Fair Hope members away. A documentary, The Contradictions of Fair Hope, directed by S. Epatha Merkerson, who played Lt. Anita Van Buren in Law and Order for over 15 years, and attorney Rockell Metcalf, turns the camera on modern-day Hale County, Alabama, and traces the story of Metcalf’s family involvement with the Fair Hope Benevolent Society. The film looks at a possible future reconciling the younger festival attendees with the historic church-going members’ mission.

Documentary looks at twists in the evolution of Alabama’s Fair Hope Benevolent Society by Mark Maurer/The Star-Ledger

The society march was a staple of the Fair Hope Benevolent Society’s annual celebration as documented in the film “The Contradictions of Fair Hope, ” which won the best long documentary award at the Newark Black Film Festival’s biennial Paul Robeson Awards.

Concerned about an endangered cultural institution, actress S. Epatha Merkerson spent three years learning to make a documentary, and researching benevolent societies, so that she could share the story of Fair Hope.

Co-directed by the “Law & Order” alum and host of “Find Our Missing,” the film has won best long documentary at the biennial Paul Robeson Awards, a part of the Newark Museum’s Newark Black Film Festival. The 38th annual festival wraps up tonight.

In 67 minutes, the film presents “splendid contradictions of deity and the devil, preaching and prostitution, gospel and guns, devotion and drugs, heaven and hell,” says narrator Whoopi Goldberg.

Formed by freed slaves in 1888, the Fair Hope society aided the sick, helped to buy food for the impoverished and to bury the dead, and counted as a form of insurance. It even operated a school. Members paid 10 cents a month for these services, and leftover funds went to an annual celebration.

Over the years, its annual gathering was overhauled with a decadent bent and became known as the “Foot Wash.” (The origins of that name are murky: It could refer to the Baptist religious practice of foot-washing — not a feature of the society’s religious practices , but erroneously attributed to it — or it could be a city visitor’s insulting term for an event out in the dusty Uniontown, Ala., countryside, a visit to which might require foot-washing once the traveler returned home).

History of the Footwash Festival:

History of the Footwash FestivalThe Fairhope Benevolent Society was formed when a group of men in 1888 in Faunsdale, AL. met to develop a solution to improve the conditions of burying the dead.  They did this because limited life insurance was available to African Americans, and burial costs could be very burdensome on the remaining family members.  Dues of $0.10 per month were collected from each member.  The funds were used to purchase caskets which, at the time, sold for $37.  The remaining money was used to aid the sick and finance burials.

There was often money left over at the end of the year, and with this, the members decided to select a time and hold an annual affair.  The fourth Sunday in September was chosen.  At these annual meetings, the members met in a small one-room building, and the gathering always included a sermon by a minister.  The women who went traditionally wore white. Despite some confusion, the act of foot-washing was never a practice of the Fairhope Benevolent Society.  This name came from a group who were going down to the annual meeting.  They jokingly said they were going to Footwash because they were leaving the city to go to a rural area and they would have to wash their feet when they got back.

This led to the Footwash festival that is held annually in Alabama, beginning a few days before the fourth Sunday in September.  To people in the Faunsdale-Uniontown area the festival is often referred to as “going to Greer´s’ for Oscar Greer, a prominent white land owner in the area the African Americans honored by naming the one-room school they built . The original building was destroyed by fire and a new one erected in its place in 1955. That building (pictured above with Ms. Ora M. Burks standing in front of) sits in the center of the site of the Footwash festival. Ms. Burks and others in the area are rasing funds to preserve the building and to use it as historical visitor´s center. To find out more about and to support the cause, write: Rainbow, Inc., P. O. Box 169, Uniontown, AL 36786.

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